Cambodia’s first U.S. education fair was held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, in which many U.S. universities set up booths and briefly described and answered questions about studying in the United States to a big crowd of excited Khmer youth.
I heard about this a while back, and I told a couple of my Cambodian friends whom I thought would be interested and benefit somehow from this. Their names are SoViet (the artist) Sopha (one of SoViet’s staff at his gallery) and Theanly (another fantastic artist.) SoViet is really supportive of everyone, and when he saw Sopha’s interest in the education fair, he brought Sopha along. (What boss does that? Pay for a staff’s trip to a fair?)…an awesome man, that’s who! We traveled from Battambang to Phnom Penh, which takes about six hours by bus, and we got up bright and early to go to this education fair.
There were many young Khmer students there. I’m guessing they were still in high school.
Anyway, we were all very excited about the fair because my Cambodian friends dream about being able to experience the United States. They are very curious, and they ask me things like, “Does it snow?” ” How big is your house?” “Are Americans respectful to their elders?” “How much money do people make?” and the question most relevant to the education fair, “How much does it cost to study at the university?”
Well, today that question was answered in the presentation. I can only speak for myself, but I can imagine what they must have felt when the answer to that last question finally arrived. I felt very uncomfortable because I’d almost forgotten how expensive college really is, and it was my idea to bring them to this education fair. Needless to say, things got a little gloomy after the presentation. I could see in their eyes that the sparkle of possibilities had gone. It made me angry when I realized this education fair was targetting a specific group, and my friends were not a part of that group. I wish I could say scholarships would suffice, but that is not the reality.
For example, one of the requirements for studying abroad is a bank account statement from the student’s parents. First of all, most of the people I work with do not have bank accounts, and even if they did there would probably not be much in those accounts. So, sponsors are needed, and those are extremely hard to come across. English is a requirement as well, but that is no problem as their English is fantastic!
Anyway, we made the most of it by asking a lot of questions and meeting everybody. I suggested to the guys that they should practice meeting the representatives of the schools and ask questions about anything. They were a little shy but they did it, and they did a fantastic job! I was very impressed and excited to see them implementing some of my suggestions.
Later that evening as we looked out of the tenth floor bedroom of a friend’s house at the horizon, a landscape of rooftops going on forever, we began our discussion about education. Maybe it was the really nice breeze or the view that gave us a new outlook, but we came to the conclusion that if they really wanted to study abroad, they could do it. The beautiful thing is that we were not trying to make ourselves feel better by talking ourselves into optimism. We genuinely believed and still believe that anything we want to achieve is possible. As we stood up there on the balcony we felt the power and energy of our words. It was tangible.
Being in the same space and sharing so much with SoViet, Sopha, and Theanly has been such an education beyond what I could have ever imagined. Heck! Every single day in Cambodia has provided a lesson that I could never hope to get in a $30,000 university. I shared this realization with my Khmer friends, and I was so happy to hear that they agreed with me and they were happy that I was here in Cambodia with them. We have shared so much, and although I had already felt this in me, I now know that I have made life-long friends in the Kingdom of Wonder.